‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,’ a prequel about the least-likable Hunger Games character
Are megalomaniacs made, or are they born that way?
Suzanne Collins aims to answer that question in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the just-released prequel to her blockbuster Hunger Games trilogy. It’s an entertaining story, full of cinematic-worthy set pieces and inventive callbacks. Alas, the key relationship begs a suspension of disbelief that mars its dive into the molding of a dystopian leader.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, the imperiously evil president who clashes with Hunger Games victor Katniss Everdeen in the original series.
Collins says she wanted to use this novel to explore the nature-vs.-nurture argument espoused by philosopher John Locke. “The groundwork for the aging President Snow of the trilogy was laid in childhood,” she notes in a Q-and-A released with the book. “Then there’s Locke, who’s all over this book, with his theory of tabula rasa, or blank slate, in which we’re all products of our experiences.”
It’s an intriguing premise. Yet the plot’s success hinges on the answer to a different question. Would any self-respecting ur-Katniss fall in love with this younger version of Snow we’re given? She would not, and that damages this novel.
We first meet a teen-age Snow in a sequence that mirrors the beginning of The Hunger Games. It’s the morning of the reaping, the annual ceremony to choose a boy and girl “tribute” from each of Panem’s 12 districts who will fight to the death in a televised spectacle. Snow is a university student, one of a favored few chosen to mentor a tribute in the Capitol’s ongoing efforts to reinvent the Games and further engage its audience.
Snow’s already got big dreams and a bit of a big head, even though the wealth of his family has dwindled away since his parents’ deaths. So when the the government assigns him the tribute from District 12, which readers of the original will remember is the worst of the districts ruled over by the Capital, he’s more than a little peeved.
He needn’t have worried. Just as Katniss won fans by volunteering as tribute to save her younger sister, Lucy Gray Baird makes an equally memorable entrance. Bedecked in a multicolored frock, she slips a snake down the back of a rival’s dress before ascending the platform and singing “You can’t take my sass/You can’t take my talking/You can kiss my ass/And then keep on walking.”
This Manic Pixie Dream Tribute rightly captivates the future President Snow. Lucy Gray entrances with every appearance. She’s proud: “Own it,” she hisses to Snow when news cameras capture him visiting the bedraggled group of tributes. She’s kind to children and animals. And she’s talented, not just in her singing but in the stagecraft that makes her public moments in the Games cry out for the film adaptation already in the works.
What makes far less sense is why Lucy Gray would embrace Snow as a potential love interest. He does bring her food, at first so she’ll be strong enough for the Games, and then because he likes her. When they meet to discuss strategy, he asks if the guard can remove her ankle chains. They share orphan status, and a few personal discussions, but too quickly she appears to be as enamored of Snow as he is of her. “She gave him a wistful smile. ‘Sure would’ve been nice to meet you under different circumstances,’” she laments. She’s facing near-certain death, and a decent picnic along with a few conversations are enough to win her over? A girl who deploys snakes probably expects a little more.
Despite all that, longtime fans will find much to enjoy here. Collins brings us lots of intriguing details that inform how the Games evolved, including the introduction of gambling and drone-dropped supplies. Snow’s friendship with fellow university student Sejanus Plinth provides ethical discussion about the nature of rebellion and true leadership.
Early hubbub over this prequel included some disappointment from those who didn’t understand why Collins would focus on the backstory of arguably her least likable character. While The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes may give us a more nuanced look at the man who would become dictator over its 500-plus pages, ultimately I’m left wanting more on the girl who prefaced Katniss.